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YALI Voices Podcast: Juliet Odhiambo Says Financial Literacy is the Key to Economic Success
November 4, 2019

“It was eye-opening to … deal with money really, and not just for myself, but for my siblings,” shares Juliet Odhiambo, a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow.

Juliet Odhiambo with one of her financial literacy classes (Courtesy Juliet Odhiambo)
Juliet Odhiambo with one of her financial literacy classes (Courtesy Juliet Odhiambo)

Juliet was raised in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya. The daughter of a single father, Juliet taught herself the basics of budgeting to care for her family.

She now holds a master’s degree in international relations from the United States International University-Africa. Juliet has worked as both a banker and as a financial literacy trainer in Kenya.

In this YALI Voices podcast, Juliet shares her vision of empowering African leaders with financial literacy skills. She also touches on her goal of connecting young people with their passions as a means of self-advocacy. “When I was in high school is when I think I kind of found myself. I found my voice, I found who I am,” she says.

For Juliet, “young people are not taught about money, but they learn by seeing … no one is intentional about sitting them down and talking about finances.”

Now the founder and director of Pesa Savvy (@PesaSavvy on Instagram), a company that focuses on financial education, she also teaches young entrepreneurs how to manage their businesses financially for the long term.

Listen to the full podcast or read the transcript below to find out more, including the challenges of teaching financial literacy and Juliet’s efforts to expand public access to the field.





JULIET: My name is Juliet Odhiambo. I’m from Nairobi, Kenya.


♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪

VOICE-OVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up-to-date on all things YALI.

YALI Network member and 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow Juliet Odhiambo believes that the earlier you learn about money, the easier it is to avoid financial misfortunes later in life. With over eight years in the banking and financial sector in Kenya, Juliet knows that financial literacy for individuals and business owners is key to economic success. She also volunteers as a financial literacy trainer — empowering students, community youth groups and small-business owners by teaching the basics of financial management for personal and business growth. For Juliet, being financially literate helps to reduce poverty for individuals, communities and nations.

Juliet’s awareness of the need for financial literacy started early and at home. We begin our conversation with her telling us about this early inspiration.


JULIET ODHIAMBO: I grew up in Nairobi, born and raised, literally. My parents had moved from the western part of Kenya into the city. My mom was a teacher. My dad was a medical practitioner. So I grew up with two sisters and one brother, and I was like in the middle. I’m like the third one, yeah?

So, growing up in the city was interesting because of the level of exposure I got, literally just because of being in the city, and I think my parents were very intentional about doing that. And it also gave me access to a whole diverse group of people from school, from church, from the neighborhood. And I think that all that exposure kind of worked to make me who I am at this point. And, so I went to — when I was in high school is when I think I kind of found myself. I found my voice, I found who I am, I think. Very grateful for those four years I spent in high school because that’s when actually I realized or started developing my leadership skills.

Or I realized that I have something that people can work with, if I could say that. I became class captain, then assistant school captain, and then worked and led a few clubs in high school. And then, from then into church, got involved in a lot of church and leadership activities within the church, and really from then on it’s kind of just took a turn on its own. But I think one of the things that I always talk about when I talk about growing up in those days was that my mom passed away when I was younger in high school, and so it was just us and my dad, and he had a job where he had to travel a lot. And so at some point he had to — rather because he was away for like three to four days at a time, and so he would leave us with the money to take care of the groceries until he comes back.

And my big sister, because she was the oldest, was kind of responsible of taking care of the money until at some point I realized that she wasn’t doing a very good job of it, because she would, um — like one or two days before my dad would come up, we’d have run out of money and yet it was enough. You know?

So we realized that she used to take some of it and, you know, YOLO, you know, “you only live once,” and go clubbing and all that. And then two days we’d go without food, we’d go really just — it’s as if my dad didn’t leave us with enough money. So I kind of just took the onus of it on myself and … ’cause what my dad used to do is that he would leave the money on top of the fridge, ’cause he would leave so early in the morning. And so my big sister would just take it. But because I used to wake up earlier than her, I decided to just take charge. I decided to take charge of it, and from then on is when I really … It was eye-opening to kind of having to deal with money really, and not just for myself, but for myself and my siblings, and trying to budget and making sure that we have — we’re spending enough until Dad comes back home.

And so that is my first experience with money, and always because, I try to reach out to younger audiences and I look back to that time, and knowing how important it was for me then is what motivates me to target younger students when I’m doing financial literacy work.


JULIET: I have eight years’ experience in banking and training — financial literacy training attached to a bank, a local bank called Standard Chartered Bank — and so I worked in various capacities at that point, but then I also volunteered in the bank as a financial literacy trainer. So we would have a group of volunteers who would go out to schools, to universities, to community organizations, to companies, and then we would have sessions of financial education. Now, depending on who the target was, then the content was packaged differently. And for a long time, I loved that aspect of that work because it wasn’t my BAU work; it wasn’t my day-to-day work, but it gave me a reason to go to work, really. And when I realized that it was the only thing that made me happy about work, for me it was a realization in terms of “time to move on,” really.


So I am the founder and director of my own company that is called Pesa Savvy. Pesa in Swahili means “money.” And savvy is just S-A-V-V-Y, “smart.” So trying to make money-smart youth in Kenya.

So I am the founder and the director. I also do the content development for the courses and I pretty much manage, because as a startup you kind of have to kind of wear different hats. And where I need to, I rely a lot on volunteers. I rely on friends, and I rely on the YALI Network, and I rely on the fellowship to get people who can help me when I have functions and events that are related to the financial education work.

VOICE-OVER: We asked Juliet to share her thoughts on what she discovered about youth, financial literacy and financial management.

JULIET: Young people are not taught about money, but they learn by seeing. They emulate what they see their parents do or the environment around them. But no one is intentional about sitting them down and talking about finances, mostly because at that age they think it’s too lofty for you or it’s not information that you need at that point. Up until you get into college and then you are, you have a lot of work, a lot more money than you’re used to dealing with. And so, that’s when they realize actually there’s a problem. So when you’re in high school, if you happen to have been in boarding school, you might get some pocket money, but then it’s very limited, and then because you’re in the school context, there’s only so much you can do with it. After high school, going into campus, you finally have access to student loans, and you have to pay for accommodation, and you have all these expenses that you never had to deal with before, and no one prepared you for it.

There’s almost like immediate realization that you’re inadequately prepared to deal with the finances. You don’t know how banks work, you don’t know how to open a bank account, you don’t know how ATMs work. You have no idea, really, about anything. And so it’s at that point that, if you’re lucky, then you can get some information that you might need. If not, then it kind of ripples — it keeps going as responsibilities increase and as your money increases, the bad discipline around money just kind of multiplies as the money increases. If you happen to get a job after your college, then now the money increases even more and responsibilities increase even more. And so if you didn’t develop any financial discipline at that point, then it kind of just goes on and on until you’re older.

The other thing is that we’re in such a delicate time, especially in Kenya, where technology is coming at such a fast pace, and so we have these financial “fintech” companies, financial technology companies that are mostly targeting young people in terms of offering loans. They’re offering easy money, really. Easy money, and you don’t have to do anything to get it. You know, just download an app, put in your details, tell them you need this much money, and you get it into your mobile account. And so there are so many of them, like Kenya has maybe 20, even more companies that deal with micro-loans that are accessible by your phone. And so you find that one person can have an account, can have a loan from one company, download another app, get another loan, download another app, get another loan. When this one is due, get it from this other company, pay it back, and then it’s just kind of a ripple effect that goes on from there. And so that has created a whole new mess in itself because of that technology.

So it’s good that we have the technology, but I think the companies or regulators need to kind of put some structures around how people are able to access the loans that they need or for what — something. There’s just something that needs to be done in terms of decreasing the accessibility of it. The final and last, which has been a key campaign of mine over the past year, is that of betting and gambling … but it also has been intensified by technology. So we have people who, young people again — between 15, even, to even older people, but they start quite young, early. So where through their mobile phones they’re able to put in bets on which sports team is going to win, which which football team is going to win, put in some money, lose the money. Quite often lose than win. And so they develop a cycle around that, and so I was actually talking to one of the students who was going through my program, and he was talking about losing about a hundred dollars in a span of three months, just after leaving campus, college.

And so first of all he has no money, so where that money’s coming from is a, is a question in itself. So he was just telling me he knows he has a problem. So at that time I was trying to create a campaign about regulation for these betting companies, and I was writing an essay-writing competition on why these companies should be abolished.

And so I was targeting students in high school and university to kind of write essays about the effects of betting on young people’s finances. And so it’s in that process that I was actually able to reach even more people and understand the fact that it’s actually becoming a systemic issue.

A lot of legal work has gone around it since then, which I hope is for the better. But it was one of the things I also picked up that affects young people with money.


JULIET: OK, so how I structured my work is that there is an element of personal finance, but then there’s also an element of business finance. Before you transition into the business finance, I’d need you to go through the personal finance as a basis, as a foundational course. Then of course we have those who are trying to set up their businesses. Especially with the high rate of unemployment, we have a lot of people moving towards self-employment, and self-employment but with no financial background. So you know you need to make money and you have a way of doing it, and somehow within the process you’re already buying and selling, and you think you’re making money but you’re really not. And trying to understand what it takes to determine whether your business is actually earning an income or earning a profit. That is the, I think, the very basic importance when it comes to financial education and business and young people is to determine, “Is my business profitable or is it not?” Because we have a lot of pop-up shops around the neighborhood, people who sell day-to-day groceries, but they are not making any money and they don’t know they’re not making any money. All they know is that “We buy, and then we sell.” But is it profitable? Is it actually sustainable? They can’t tell because they’re not keeping the books, they’re not determining how much was spent on these things and now using that cost to determine how much to sell it for.

It’s very basic. You would think that someone would know that, ideally. But when you have discussions with young entrepreneurs in startups, that’s really where it begins, because they’re doing it, they’re in business, but they’re not making money, and they don’t know they’re not making any money.

VOICE-OVER: As an entrepreneur, Juliet has had her own challenges with getting her startup off the ground and designing the right model for her business. Throughout, she kept her focus on creating a model that allowed her to reach the consumers of her products while managing her costs, all with the aim of finding a sustainable business solution.

JULIET: And so currently what I’m doing is that I do have online courses and I do have a website. My website is www.pesasavvy.com. On that website I’ve explained what Pesa Savvy is about — the vision, the background, where it started and where we’re going, the direction that we’re going. So I currently have people who have gone through the first foundational course that was online, which allowed me to also kind of get feedback on what the experience was like and what I can do to change it and make it better. So I’m currently hosting the course on thinkific.com, and it has several courses taken over four weeks. And so it includes the students going through videos, going through downloading templates that they need and other material that they need, depending on the topic that we’re going through. And then each week we have an online discussion around that particular topic.

And so after that, then, sometimes there’s homework assignments to do, especially things like going into the field, and if you don’t have a bank account, go visit a bank, for example, which many people haven’t. And then come back and then we talk about that experience and what did you learn, and what stood out for you, and what are the actionable steps out of that. And so that happens for a period of four weeks, and then after that, then they get certified by the company, and now we move on to a new cohort. So that’s basically how it functions at the moment, so a lot of the information can actually be found on the website.


JULIET: I want young people to learn that it’s absolutely vital that they start early. When it comes to things like compound interest, for example, which is the idea that you earn more over a period of time because your money is working for you. That in itself means that you start the process — the earlier you start, the bigger your benefit, basically. Now, you cannot compare someone who, for example, starts saving at 20 years old and consistently does it, compared to someone who starts at 40 and consistently does it with the intention of retiring at 60 based on what they’ve been able to amass.

So because of that understanding, it’s important that young people start that process early, and this is the process of saving and investing. Saving and investing is most beneficial to you when you start at the earliest opportunity. Now, it’s difficult for you to start when you don’t know what the end — you don’t know what you’re working towards. And which is why financial education programs are very important. Because now I help you to understand what your financial goal is. Once you understand why do I need to do this and why … once you understand the why, then you’ll understand why you need to start early.

So the biggest advantage that young people have is that they are young, and so they have a whole life ahead of them, and there’s a lot you can do with time once you understand the value of what you need to do. And so that’s one key thing that I always start — it’s the basis of why you need to start budgeting, it’s the basis of why you need to develop some financial discipline. It’s the basis of understanding your money mindset and your money personality, because that determines the kind of changes you need to make so that you meet your financial goal.

So that would be the key thing for me, actually. Understanding your financial goal and then understanding why you need to start early and then understanding compound interest. Those are big for young people.

VOICE-OVER: Juliet also wanted to share how she has benefited from being a member of the YALI Network and how she hopes Network members will support and encourage one another.

JULIET: I believe the YALI Network is a great resource. I’ve done several of the courses, and a lot of what I learned from the online courses I find myself subconsciously transferring even in my own sessions. I might not click that this is where I got the idea from, but I do find myself talking about a lot of those things in my own sessions. When I came back from the U.S., the first thing I started was to do a focus group discussion from people, my target audience, and trying to determine the best ways they learn, because I really wanted to tailor the courses in a way that they will access quickly and engage with quickly, because, as opposed to just, you know, developing slides and having … What else can we do?

And so that’s why I try and make that work very practical and very engaging. Like, I need them to engage with the material. And so that came out of the focus group discussion. In that focus group, the members who participated in the focus group were YALI Network members. And so from the very beginning they played a key role in helping me form and determine the lengths of the content that I was going to deal with and the packaging of that content as well.

The other thing is that we have several other members within the network who also work with young people, empowering them in different capacities. Some have mentorship programs. Some have other things that they’re doing with young people. And so whenever there’s need for discussion around finances, that’s where I come in, and we’re able to partner to do the kind of work that want to do here. So in that sense, we feed into each other’s work and we’re feeding to the network as a whole.

I think, I need, whoever’s listening, especially within the network, that you need to value it, and you place value by reaching out. Especially when you’re in the startup space, it’s a lonely space, especially when you’re just beginning, because you don’t necessarily have a team, and you might have this idea that you want to do it alone, but you really can’t. So the value of the network is seeing when you are able to reach out and talk to people who you know will add value to you.

But the network is so valuable. But you won’t experience the value if you’re living in a solo kind of life. So you have to know what you need in terms of the work that you’re doing, be able to identify it, and be confident enough to reach out and ask for help.

VOICE-OVER: Thank you, Juliet.

If you’d like to know more about Juliet and financial literacy, visit her website at www.pesasavvy.com. That’s w-w-w dot p-e-s-a-s-a-v-v-y dot com.

Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.

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